We categorize people, both publicly, and privately, in our own minds, so we can determine how we will interact with that person. We tune our language to be understood. We form ideas about new people based on who we have already sorted and collected. And without much thought, we determine how much attention, or affection each person should receive. We determine those for whom we will advocate, and who we will help.
We use all of our previous personal experiences when we start again each morning. Every action: what to eat, what to wear, what time to leave our home, and which route to take to our destination is based on the life we have already led, and what we have learned from stories we have heard and stored. Hopefully we continue to gain small insights every moment to make our next days easier, and more efficient. We are most at ease when we know what to expect, and what will happen next.
This is one of the systems of being human. We look for patterns, we categorize and we use the information we've gained by sorting and sensing and making minor adjustments. It's a system that works almost every day. It works just fine until something occurs outside of our perceived normal, and then we try to use it anyway, even if we shouldn't. "Normal" days are parsed rather easily, but when the parameters cannot contain what we have seen, we aren't so sure what to do.
Last Friday, December 14, 2012 was not norma- and there should never be anything normal about young children being shot in their classroom. There is nothing worth repeating in a situation where people die teaching.
So what did people do when what happened was so far out of what we expect should happen at an elementary school? What did some news media outlets do? They began to try to make sense of something that has no order, no reason, and no possible solid logic. They tried to categorize someone so we would be able to identify that person, and we would know, next time, what to expect so we could prevent another tragedy.
They concluded that Adam Lanza was not just a murderer, he was an autistic murderer. They began to categorize him, call him out as separate, as different, so we could know he wasn't like us; that there was a reason for his unbelievable crime.
It would be too painful to pin it on being male, or white, or a twenty-something-- those categories are too broad, they encompass too many people, and those descriptors do not distance the evil from the majority of good, so they went with Asperger's. Asperger's with it's undefined edges, and it's different-than status. Asperger's, mysterious in origin on a spectrum with changing definitions. It was easier to use autism; it gave their story a "hook." But that kind of reporting is lazy because Asperger's didn't make Adam Lanza a killer, nor did the color of his skin, or his gender for that matter. Adam Lanza had mental health issues, and access to firepower that is beyond the scope of 2nd Amendment rights.
Intimating that Asperger's is an underlying contributor for murderous behavior is sadly ironic too, since autistics, and people with disabilities in general, are more likely to be the victims of abuse. The World Health Organzization (WHO) states "children with disabilities are 3.7 times more likely than non-disabled children to be victims of any sort of violence, 3.6 times more likely to be victims of physical violence, and 2.9 times more likely to be victims of sexual violence." And adults are 1.5 times more likely to suffer from violent crimes than their "typical" counterparts.
It would be easy to close my computer, turn off the television, and let all of this go away, because sadly, people will forget. They will get wrapped up in their Holiday travel, and their own children's birthday's before they remember the families that will have those celebrations forever changed by the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary school. We will forget, or never know, the names of the victims. If history has shown us anything, we will only really remember the name of the person who committed the crime. Of course we do, because we label them, build an image of what that person appears to be so we can spot someone like him in a crowd.
So what will happen as we move on from this horrible incident, what has happened already, is that the man who killed 26 people in an unimaginable fusillade will most likely be remembered, as
"Adam-Lanza-He-was-autistic."And autistics everywhere, of every age and gender and ability will have another hurdle in front of them, preventing them from being accepted as full citizens in our society. Discrimination, and disenfranchisement are already pervasive without adding "killer." If we do not say anything, if you do not say anything the next time someone identifies the shooter that way, if we do not speak up, we may as well have been saying it ourselves; just paving the way for more discrimination, more fear, more retaliation in ways subtle or bold.
So interrupt the person who says it. Force that person back to being uncomfortable because what happened is painful and doesn't make sense. Make them un-categorize, and untie the relationship between "autism" and "potential mass murderer" because it just isn't true.
Other reading about this subject:
Shannon Rosa on Blogher We need to Talk About Adam Lanza
Emily Willingham on Slate Autism, Empathy, and Violence: Asperger’s Does Not Explain Connecticut Shooting
Kassiane Sibley on TPGA A Plea from the Scariest Kid on the Block
Paula Durbin-Westby Mother with Asperger Syndrome Grieves Sandy Hook Elementary VictimsJohn Elder Robison on Psychology Today Asperger's Autism, and Mass Murder
Autism Women's Network AWN’s Appeal to Media Sources Covering Newtown, CT
Join: Autistics, Not Monsters
Join: Autistics, Not Monsters